Why are US tax dollars being used to subsidize a recruiting ground in North Africa for al-Qaeda terrorists, drug traffickers, and mercenaries?
That’s a question US and international policymakers should ask after reading a new study by the International Center for Terrorism Studies (ICTS), which warns that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is extending its reach across North Africa and the Sahel and actively recruiting from the Polisario-run refugee camps near Tindouf in Algeria.
The report says these camps - which are supported by millions of dollars in U.S. and international relief aid - have become “a recruiting ground for terrorists, traffickers, and other criminal enterprises.” The study calls on the U.S. and international community to “prioritize permanent refugee resettlement in line with existing international protocols and agreements.”
The ICTS study and news media report that increasing numbers of Polisario Front members have been arrested and accused of drug and arms smuggling, gun battles in Mali, kidnappings for AQIM in Mauritania and Algeria, and fighting as mercenaries for Qaddafi in Libya.
The AQIM-Polisario connection was most recently demonstrated this past October when AQIM-linked assailants abducted three Western aid workers from a Polisario headquarters camp, reportedly helped by Polisario insiders who gave assailants arms and directions to the victims.
The ICTS says that in the decade between 9/11 and the Arab Spring, terrorist kidnappings, bombings, and other attacks by AQIM and other militant groups in North Africa and the Sahel jumped more than 500 percent. It reports that AQIM is expanding its terrorist ties in an “arc of instability” across Africa, posing “one of the most worrying strategic challenges” for the international community in a region that has been “mostly overlooked by policymakers.”
The study cites AQIM’s links to other al-Qaeda affiliates and militants, including AQAP in Yemen, al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Polisario militants in Algeria, which it calls a “dangerous threat” to the region and beyond. The study notes evidence that AQIM may have obtained sophisticated Libyan arms, including surface-to-air missiles, and says intelligence reports confirm AQIM has also “opened links to Latin cartels for ‘drugs-for-arms’ smuggling to Europe through terrorist-trafficking networks in the Sahel that include Polisario members.”
Other experts concur on the seriousness of the threat. AFRICOM head US General Carter Ham recently called AQIM’s growing links with other militants in the region “very, very dangerous” and a threat to the US. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has warned that expanding AQIM terror ties could have a “profoundly destabilizing effect on countries in North Africa and the Gulf” already shaken by the Arab Spring.
Ultimately, says the ICTS report, al-Qaeda and other militants in the region seek to exploit Arab Spring instability and expand their terrorist-trafficking network across Africa and into Europe and the Americas. The study finds they are also taking advantage of “the lingering 35-year-old Western Sahara conflict, which is creating an opening for AQIM’s expansion and also recruitment of Polisario members among the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria.”
To address the growing risk of recruitment in the camps, ICTS recommends focusing US and international aid on voluntary return or resettling refugees.
This recommendation should receive very serious consideration from US and international policy makers, for humanitarian as well as security reasons, taking into account the urgent humanitarian needs of refugees. Multiple reports have documented abuse of the rights of the refugees, who are confined to the camps and denied freedom to leave. Thousands have been forced to make dangerous escapes across hostile terrain. Tragically, the refugees in the Tindouf camps are among the only refugees in the world who are welcome to resettle elsewhere, if the Polisario would only let them.
Since 1990, international agencies have spent in excess of $1 billion - more than $300 million from the U.S. - effectively perpetuating the conditions in these camps. Much of the aid has reportedly been diverted to the black market for Polisario profit. AQIM and others are now exploiting the camps as a recruiting ground.
Clearly this must stop. U.S. and international aid should be used for durable solutions that support refugee rights and resettlement, not subsidize conditions that create a recruiting ground for terrorists and traffickers.
To prepare the ground for durable solutions to the refugees’ plight, the UN Security Council has called for UNHCR to undertake a census to let the international community know the exact figures of the Tindouf camps population, to help speed up international efforts aimed at achieving a political solution to this longstanding regional dispute.
Edward M. Gabriel, former US Ambassador to Morocco, advises the Kingdom of Morocco. For more information, please visit the Department of Justice in Washington, DC.